Economics professor Itai Sher links game theory and communication
The titles of Itai Sher’s research papers are simple. "Persuasion and Limited Communication," for example. Or his master’s thesis: "Games with Misconceptions."
Don’t be fooled. Though he writes with a clarity that is rare in economics, his work is intimidating in its technical sophistication. In one paper, the phrase "it is easy to see that" is preceded by long equations of numbing complexity. Mathematical abstraction is inherent to his specialty, game theory, which analyzes strategic interaction among players, so it’s a blessing to nonmathematicians that his writing is so lucid.
An example? "Persuasion is important in a wide array of political and economic environments," he writes in a recent paper. "People often argue over the best course of action, or attempt to persuade others that their own personal desires are really best for everyone. But what makes an argument persuasive?" The next 47 pages — including 16 theorems, 11 lemmas and proofs thereof — explore that question.
In his research, Sher looks at communication in which party tries to persuade a decision maker to take a particular action. "For instance, the informed party may be a lobbyist and the decision maker may be a legislator," he explains. "My research addresses the question of how the decision maker should elicit information from the informed party, and in particular the role and value of commitment in such interactions."
Sher is interested in auction theory, too, specifically "combinatorial" auctions where bidders can bid on packages of items. He’s also exploring "boundedly-rational decision making," which is to say, the process that most humans engage in. Unlike most economists, who study math, engineering, or economics as undergraduates, Sher was a philosophy major, and his interests reflect that.
Why is Sher at Minnesota? "Because research is taken so seriously here," he says. "Let me give you an example." In January 2007, his Ph.D. from Northwestern almost in hand, Sher endured job market interviews at the American Economics Association annual meeting — a rite of passage for grad students. "Only at Minnesota’s interview was I asked to rigorously present the assumptions and details of my model," he recalls. "Minnesota was the only school that actually had a whiteboard that would allow one to write down equations and derive conclusions."
His equations were impressive. Minnesota made an offer. "And since I have been here" he says "that seriousness about and enthusiasm for economic research has been constantly in evidence."